White paper raises big questions about democratic control of development, by Richard Garlick

Predictions that the housing secretary, bruised by the controversy over his unlawful permission for a party donor, would avoid confrontation with his planning White Paper, have proved wide of the mark.

The document tells residents of expensive areas in which housing demand outstrips supply that they will have to meet a bigger share of need. It promises to make developers share big sites, and pay a fairer contribution towards the infrastructure needed to support their schemes. And, most controversially of all, it indicates that it will strip councillors of much of their development management power.

Detailed planning decisions will be delegated to planning officers "where the principle of development has been established", the White Paper says. Under the proposed new zoned local plans, that would apply to any plan-compliant scheme in one of the "growth areas" earmarked for "substantial development", and maybe also to projects in the "renewal areas" that are defined as suitable for "some development". Only in the "protected areas", where development is restricted, could elected members be sure of voting on a planning application.

A key lever with which councillors, and by extension local residents, control development in their areas would be taken away. But, the government argues, the new system would compensate by giving them more power to direct local development through the new-style local plan, and associated design codes and pattern books.

The theory is attractive. First, a community agrees how the development needed in the next decade should look, and what other standards it should meet. As long as developers comply with the community's wishes, they are free to get on and build.

But, in reality, how many residents will engage in the development of design codes? If they are concerned about new flats being built at the end of their road, will that be allayed when they learn that five years ago they had an opportunity to shape the block's design through a pattern book?

In this and countless other ways, the White Paper is stepping into the unknown. Many of the promised building blocks of the new system – such as simpler tests for local plans, and a revised standard method for assessing housing need – are as yet nothing more than items on a civil servant's 'to do' list. This unfinished quality makes the document read less like a traditional government White Paper setting out finalised policy, and more like a provocative think-tank policy paper. It is good that ministers have set a three-month consultation period. But huge upheaval is clearly on the way.

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